Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Bonefish Grill, a Florida-based chain specializing in seafood, has landed in Little Rock.
The surging crowds at the Pleasant Ridge Town Center restaurant put me in mind of schools of voracious speckled trout tearing into shrimp in gulf estuaries.
The good news is that Bonefish is a professional organization. Our predicted 80-minute wait was only 60 (spent pleasantly in the bar of Crew next door, our electronic beeper at the ready) and the service proceeded with hardly a delay despite the mob.
We've been waiting for a restaurant like this. Fish, fish and more fish, grilled over a wood fire. You can choose from a variety of sauces — lemon butter, Mediterranean, mango salsa or Pan Asian — but you can also just enjoy the considerable pleasure of a slab of moist, fresh fish filet with a hint of smoke. With salad and a side of steamed vegetables, you'll walk away satisfied and healthy. If, that is, you bypass rich side dishes and giant desserts.
Fish is said to be flown in fresh and there's a wide range of choices. They included Icelandic char, Gulf grouper, Ahi tuna, Alaskan halibut, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic salmon and tilapia. The grilled fish costs from $13 to $22 and includes a side item — potatoes au gratin, garlic mashed potatoes and angel hair pasta with marinara are among the heftier choices, though asparagus was the steamed vegetable of the evening when we visited – and bread. The house salad (with olives) or a garlicky Caesar or a cup of spicy corn chowder generously loaded with lump crab can be added to an entree for $2.80.
Grouper and salmon were cut generously and cooked right. Sea scallops and shrimp ($15.90) were another succulent and generous entree. The crab cake dinner ($16) was another winner — a pair of crab cakes, again devilishly peppered, that consisted mostly of sweet, clean crab, not binder.
They push Bang Bang shrimp ($7.90) as a starter, and we were sorry we passed it up when we saw a heaping bowl of shrimp, sauteed and coated with a spicy aioli, carried to tables nearby. But we had no regrets about giant grilled sea scallops, wrapped in bacon and served with mango chutney ($9.70). The scallops managed to be moist and the bacon crisp, no easy feat. Mussels, coconut-crusted shrimp and fried calamari were among other appealing starters.
Speaking of fried: There's not a single item on the menu coated in cornmeal and deep-fried. Not that there's anything wrong with such food. But we've no shortage of it in Arkansas. I'm happy to see the change of pace — such things as pistachio and parmesan-crusted rainbow trout, grouper piccata and shrimp fettucine.
Desserts? Key lime pie seemed the right choice for a place with murals and graphics that evoke the mangrove swamps of Florida (home to the restaurant's namesake game fish). Four of us happily shared the thick goodness of the key lime custard, topped with a huge cloud of real whipped cream and built on a graham cracker-pecan crust. Creme brulee and chocolate macadamia nut brownie cakes are also available.
There's a full bar, specialty martinis, a good-sized regular wine list (Ecco Domani pinot grigio at $23 a bottle was a cool, crisp companion to our grilled fish). There's also a small selection of wine specials that hit triple figures.
Bonefish is a dark place, with muted track lighting, but convivial. Between the low light and several of the graphic touches, there's almost a film noir feel about an evening there. It's all carefully designed and choreographed, of course, which is what chains do so well. It explains both their huge appeal and the feeling some have that it's almost like eating in a hospital, albeit a very attractive one, with careful portion control, rigid standards on service and plating, etc.
Our group of four included no particular chain restaurant fans. But we all left very happy about this night out. More fish for me. Soon.